U.S. Considers Turkey's Role In Fighting ISIS After Coup Attempt

Jul 22, 2016
Originally published on July 22, 2016 11:12 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The crackdown in Turkey has put the U.S. in a difficult position. Turkey is a key ally in the fight against ISIS. But this week, as the U.S.-led global coalition to counter ISIS held a strategy session in Washington, D.C., Turkey's foreign and defense ministers weren't there. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S., it seems, is treading carefully.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry says he understands why his Turkish counterpart needed to stay home this week and send a deputy instead.

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JOHN KERRY: We respect that. Right now, they have some priorities.

KELEMEN: And he was careful not to criticize Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the thousands of arrests made in the wake of the failed coup. The U.S. wants to make sure that Turkey remains a key player in the fight against ISIS and that the U.S. has continued access to a Turkish air base.

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KERRY: They have said with certainty that they are deeply committed to the ongoing mission, that they do not want to miss a beat in terms of the operations we're currently engaged in.

KELEMEN: Other NATO allies of Turkey have raised concerns about the current crackdown, though. And many Turkey watchers here in the U.S. say Erdogan is using the coup as an excuse to wipe out any political opposition. But Gulnur Aybet, who runs a political science program at a university in Istanbul, says she thinks the U.S. is blind to the support Erdogan has in his country.

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GULNUR AYBET: This society is going through a massive transformation, and it's not going to be the same Turkey that all of us in the West knew and engaged with.

KELEMEN: Speaking in a teleconference organized by the Wilson Center, where she once worked, Aybet says she's been frustrated by the anti-Erdogan tone in Washington. She says the U.S. has to remember he was elected.

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AYBET: Try to understand what's going on here and engage the government and the president in a much more amiable way than has been going on in the past. And I think then you will find that the reaction also coming from this end towards the West will be quite different.

KELEMEN: Others say it is Turkey that needs to reach out more to the U.S. As the Wilson Center's Henri Barkey points out, Erdogan was vetted in Washington when he first came to power, and relations only soured as the Turkish leader became more autocratic and blamed the West for his problems.

HENRI BARKEY: The Erdogan of the early years was a very different Erdogan than today.

KELEMEN: Erdogan has objected to U.S. support for Kurdish forces that are fighting ISIS, while the U.S. complain that Turkey didn't do enough to counter extremism in Syria. The attempted coup in Turkey has increased tensions over another issue - the fate of a Turkish cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey accuses Fetullah Gulen of being behind the coup and wants him extradited. A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey says the U.S. will have to take this seriously or risk relations with Turkey turning even more sour.

JAMES JEFFREY: There was a very serious and very violent attempt to overthrow a friendly government's Democratic establishment, and a lot of indications point towards Pennsylvania, so that has to be looked at.

KELEMEN: That's certainly what Turkey's ambassador to Washington, Serdar Kilic, expects.

SERDAR KILIC: What we expect from the United States is to act in accordance with the time-tested alliance relationship between Turkey and the United States.

KELEMEN: That alliance is being tested now more than ever, though the ambassador told reporters today that U.S. and Turkish judicial officials are working on the extradition request. He adds the U.S. should give the Erdogan government the benefit of the doubt as it tries to root out the coup plotters. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.